Technology and Autism,
Technology is a beautiful thing. It can change lives.
Years ago, our friend Charlie, who has since passed away, remarked that “someday, we will be able to collect all of our information and store it in a device the size of a credit card”. Charlie did not live to see his auspicious vision. So here we are today, using our phones to purchase items, take pictures, chat with friends, check our balance, and research information in a matter of seconds. How can this work for the autism community?
When our quadruplets were toddlers, I needed the tentacles of an octopus to simultaneously reach each crying baby. The miracle of Disney on videotape was my new friend; a nanny of the technology kind. Walt Disney had no idea that “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” would be the catalyst to propel words from our autistic son’s mouth. Our beloved speech therapist, Dr. Nancy Schwartz, used the television as the catalyst for the prompt. “Turn it…?” she started the phrase. Paulie walked up to the TV, pointed and said “On”. One single word changed our lives. He could talk! And then came the hard work.
Perseverative behavior is a powerful force. Sometimes it is so seductive that even parents and therapists don't realize that it is taking place. Utilizing computer games or television might be fruitful if it is offered as a "supply and demand" exercise. The story below exemplifies the power of allowing the dangling fruit or candy or television show or computer device to evoke language.
Historically, human beings affected by autism, are governed by levels of rigidity and inflexibility. The variables depend on areas of understanding and functioning in the spectrum of pervasive developmental disorders. I do believe that man is innately reactive, and responds to conditioned reflexes, as in Pavlov’s experiment. Consequently, flexibility and rigidity might be partners, albeit unwilling, in tackling autism.
Consequently, if one subscribes to the behavioral modification theory, we might be convinced that if the stakes are high enough, flexibility could be induced by the dangling carrot, or candy, or video, or train game, or twirling top, or any other inflexible routine. Basically, we hold the abhorrent behavior hostage, and make it work for us. Clearly Annie Sullivan was successful in developing communication with Helen Keller. She too, used a behavioral model.
Initially, our disabled toddler seemed very content in his world. He did not tantrum or cry unless he was hurt.
However, we never allowed him to perseverate or dwell on rigid ritualistic behavior. I remember sabotaging his obsessive design of salt, pepper and napkins that were grouped in a line on our kitchen table. Every time he tried, I went in there and messed it up. We were operating on gut feeling, and somehow fighting an unknown opponent.
When our son remained non- verbal at age 3, and the masters in the field advised us to get a sign board (as used for the hearing impaired) because he would never speak, we instinctively knew that there must be another way. I am keenly aware that there are many children who are able to communicate effectively employing the use of signing.
Nevertheless, parents must trust their instincts at some juncture, and this was our most significant determination thus far.
We found a speech therapist that created a model that worked for our son. Her name is Dr. Nancy Schwartz, and I say, without exaggeration, she changed our lives. Utilizing a type of Gestalt, she would choose a habit that our son was drawn to, in his case he was mesmerized by Disney videos. She would allow him to watch a segment, and midstream, turn it off. She followed with a simple phrase…”turn it o_?” making the ‘ah’ sound. Remarkably, within a week our nonverbal child was filling in the blanks, with simple words like on and more.
I am not a Pollyanna, who believes in miracles, or that a few words made our son normal. Yet, we all must have a vision for growth, and are compelled to start somewhere. Nearly twenty years have passed, and I continue to believe that a behavioral approach plays a significant piece in conquering autism. Dr. Schwartz’s no nonsense approach is hardly a candidate for a popularity contest. She makes no apologies for her assault on autism, yet often induces results. Dr. Schwartz has treated hundreds of children over the years, and clearly emphasizes that no cases are exactly alike.
She has developed a certain methodology that has gleaned positive results in recent years, specifically stressing that procuring language by creating motivation through relatedness is the essential conduit for successful interaction. Ideally, you don’t want one without the other. Dr. Schwartz has enhanced her process to ‘humanize’ (my word) children on the spectrum. The downside of simply regurgitating words creates a robot or automaton like behavior.
I must admit, that when our boy could not speak, we did not care how we got language. Given our desperation, we were determined that we would 'hone' his social delivery in the future. The years flew by, and our son continued to escalate his level of speech, but the delay remained in social understanding. Ultimately, creating motivation through relatedness was the key.
I reiterate that every case is truly unique. Dr. Schwartz applauds our son’s internal motivation. One of his brothers aptly coined the expression “snowflake”, describing people affected by autism. No two snowflakes are alike. Nearly twenty years ago, we were advised that our main aspiration should be that he never plateau, an auspicious goal.
However, and this is a huge caveat, when technology becomes a crutch, make it worthwhile. There have been such advancements in assistive technology with regards to hearing impaired individuals. Cochlear implants have altered lives. Facilitated communication, utilizing hand over hand prompts on a keyboard device has faced scrutiny. I cannot comment on the efficacy of this process. Nevertheless, if a behavioral response is elicited from a child who craves playing with his Ipad, it can work productively.
I digress from the issue at hand to make a point. When my typical children tell me that they “talked” to someone, I mistakenly interpret that they moved their mouths and held a phone. No, it might actually mean that they talked on Facebook chat, or texted. The art of communication is sorely challenged in this arena. Perhaps it does not truly impact their lives in a negative way, but if an individual with autism clings to the computer or Ipad, it just might restrict communication. There is also the issue of media overload (watch video); Beware of technology overload.
The point is that while technology is a powerful force, it is up to individuals who work with the autism community, to be pro- active. As parents, we need to trust our instincts, yet glean from professionals who show data about successes and failures.
My suggestions are practical. Make your own list. It is empowering.
For younger children:
• Research a speech therapist who uses technology as a tool, not a crutch
o Repetition and echolalia are part and parcel to many behaviors in autistic children. It further invites children into their own world of inanimate objects, rather than human interaction. Aiding and abetting that powerful isolation is counterproductive to progress.
• Use technology to elicit speech
• Use a behavioral model; make those devices work for your child!
• Collect data
• Visual learning is common for children with autism; designer programs may prove effective by adjusting to your child’s needs
For adult children:
• Utilize technology to practice social communication; facial recognition
• Research job opportunities in the technology arena
• Practice interviews
• Utilize the telephone for practicing speaking and listening; oftentimes most difficult without a visual.
Finally, be flexible. The world is an ever-changing entity. What worked for your child a year ago, may have changed into a new reality, new motivations required, and hopefully, goals reached, and new vistas ahead.